Andrew Rosen’s Theory
“In theory, anything is possible.”
This seems to be Andrew Rosen’s tag line. He uttered this half jokingly to a room full of Harvard Business School students this past Friday, fully aware of the phrase’s punniness. After all Rosen is best known for building his own theory from the ground up, taking it from an experiment in stretch fit pants to a multi-million dollar, international business known far and wide for its modern tailoring and minimal aesthetic. Since founding that wildly successful business 15 years ago, Rosen has spread his interests further, investing personally in young labels with serious market potential–think Rag & Bone, Proenza Schouler and Alice + Olivia–and watching over their flowering like a grizzled fashion maestro, calmly collected in a simple black tee and black rimmed glasses.
Rosen was at HBS on invite from the Business School’s Retail and Luxury Goods Club, who arranged Friday’s panel. David Neville and Marcus Wainwright, the designers of Rag & Bone and friends of Rosen’s, were present as well to plug their new Boston store (Harvard Student’s presenting ID get a special friends and family discount this weekend!).
Surrounded as he was by eager, over-educated Harvard students, Rosen seemed proud to admit that he never really had any official schooling in business:
“I went to college very late… and only stayed for two years. I did learn about supply and demand though”
Not surprisingly then, most of Rosen’s business acumen he gained through long experience. A literal progeny of the garment industry, he learned the ropes of the business from his father Carl Rosen, who Andrew describes as a “very successful clothing manufacturer.” The younger Rosen spent his early 20’s visiting factories and warehouses, getting a sense for the knuts and bolts of a successful clothing business. Later on, he took his know-how to an executive position at Anne Klein before finally deciding to branch out on his own in his mid-forties.
Though a late bloomer by entrepreneur standards, Rosen was nothing but calculating in his decision to start his own business so late in the game. He had been in fashion long enough to know the industry’s ups and downs and had a clear sense of the company he wanted to create. Seeing a gap in the market for high quality yet accessible clothing, Rosen founded theory on the concept of clothing that was unbranded but still recognizable in their cut. He wanted to send a clear message to a particular type of customer, a customer looking for uncluttered, beautifully made pieces that could be mixed and matched for all of life’s occasions.
Now, 15 years later, global expansion and the integration of a higher priced line designed by Nina Ricci alum Olivier Theyskens, is on Rosen’s mind. Even though the company was taken over by Japanese Fast Retailing in 2009, Rosen has remained in control of the company he founded. As fashion has changed radically in the last 15 years, theory has changed as well, evolving to appeal to a more global (and online) audience. Continuity is important in Rosen’s worldview though. Even as theory rolls out flagship stores in new markets like Shanghai and Seoul, the core mentality and culture that drives the brand remains unchanged. Though the product assortment may shift to reflect local tastes, the pervasive sense of quiet luxury that is Theory’s raison d’etre endures.
The last question of the panel was the expected “What advice do you have for getting into the fashion business” one. After a pause for thought, Rosen advised the audience members to find a brand or company that whose culture and aesthetic they identify with and to just see where things go, to be quick on their feet, hard working, and above all else passionate about what they do.
In the end, things should work out….
In theory at least.
-Thomas Dai 14′